Book Review – American Emperor

Mention Aaron Burr’s name and the first thing that comes to a person’s mind will most likely be his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton.  What might not be so well known is the path Burr took after he fled New York or the fact that, even during his tenure as vice-president under Jefferson, he was plotting to build his own empire in the western half of the United States.  In American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, David O. Stewart masterfully sheds light on this lesser-known portion of Burr’s career.  While the Burr/Hamilton duel is touched on, it is only briefly and as a backdrop to the animosity many Americans felt towards him at the time.  The majority of the book is spent covering Burr’s machinations with General James Wilkinson and Harman Blennerhassett along his subsequent trial for treason.  Stewart also discusses the dislike Jefferson had for Burr and Jefferson’s dead-level best attempts at ensuring Burr was found guilty of treason.

While the book doesn’t portray Burr in the most favorable light, I was left with the impression that Stewart gave a fair account of Burr’s character as well as his attempts at empire building without necessarily labeling him an outright traitor.  Burr isn’t painted as a monstrous traitor but neither are the charges of treason completely whitewashed.  In the end, Stewart agrees with the “not guilty” verdict based on John Marshall’s interpretation of the Constitution and not on whether or not Burr actually schemed against the U.S., which Stewart notes as being completely plausible.  The book also includes a copy of the “cipher letter” and the indictment against Burr.

American Emperor is a well-researched, readable account of Aaron Burr’s controversial plans.  I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about what happened after the duel.  (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing an electronic copy of this book.)

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